Mural art of yesteryear long lost from city

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“The Corral” was removed from Colorado Springs 50 years ago, and is displayed in the Byron Rogers Federal Courthouse in Denver.

“The Corral” was removed from Colorado Springs 50 years ago, and is displayed in the Byron Rogers Federal Courthouse in Denver.

In 1935, the Gazette proudly noted that Colorado Springs artist Frank Mechau had been commissioned to paint two murals for the downtown post office. Two years later they were installed, and there they remained until removed, probably in 1962 when the building was remodeled.

No contemporary newspaper accounts document the removal of the murals. It appears that no one in the local arts community cared enough to protest, or that the paintings no longer seemed to be historically, culturally or artistically significant.

So the Postal Service boxed them up and shipped them out of town.

They were conceived and created to be on permanent display in Colorado Springs. Although removed 50 years ago, they’re part of our artistic heritage.

Where are they now?

A long history

Funded by the Treasury Relief Art Project, the Mechau murals were two among thousands of artworks that were financed by the federal government during the Great Depression as a way of putting professional artists to work. Predictably, such programs were denounced by conservatives as government-funded boondoggles and hailed by liberals as a means of disseminating American culture and putting artists to work.

In their 2012 book, “Murals of Colorado,” Mary Motian-Meadows and Georgia Garnsey describe TRAP as “a program designed to commission unemployed artists to decorate federal buildings that had no construction budget for art. Ninety percent of the artists hired for TRAP commissions were on work relief rolls … all murals commissioned by TRAP in Colorado were Post Office murals.”

Funding for the art came from Treasury funds, but title to the art thereby created passed to the Postal Service.

Thousands of artists found temporary employment, and many of their works still decorate post offices and public buildings throughout America. Of the artists so employed, most were mediocre, some were excellent, and a few were transcendent.

Mechau was among the transcendent few. During his short life, he created bold, arresting and often controversial works of art uninhibited by the constraints imposed by government funding.

The 1936 commission “Dangers of the Mail,” which hung in the Washington D.C., Postal Building, was given a two-page spread in Time magazine and provoked thousands of comments nationally. Eschewing politely formulaic renderings of the often-vicious encounters between white settlers and Native Americans, a corner of the painting showed Native Americans scalping denuded female captives.

The New York Times rallied to the artist’s defense, calling his work “spectacular and exhilarating,” while Time wondered whether “the white victims on the right will remain nude when the panel is unveiled.”

The women are still nude, but today the painting is under attack for its depiction of Native Americans. When the Environmental Protection Agency moved into the building in 2000, some employees claimed that the painting created a hostile work environment. EPA director Christine Todd Whitman first ordered the painting removed “for repairs,” hoping the controversy would die down. When reinstalled, objections continued. After creating a panel to review the matter, which included both art critics and EPA employees, the government decided to leave the painting in place, but to screen it from view, except by special request. Only in Washington!

In 1937, Mechau’s Colorado Springs commissions were hung in the Post Office. Titled “Indian Fight” and “The Corral,” the two paintings are vast in scale and ambition. The 12-by-5½-foot paintings depict a Pony Express rider changing horses and enduring a hostile attack. If still at the Post Office, they would have long since attained the iconic status of another Colorado Springs Mechau masterwork, the 60-foot fresco of running horses that graces the courtyard of the Fine Arts Center.

Can the murals come home?

When the murals left Colorado Springs, it appears that they were moved to Denver and hung in Building 41 of the General Services Administration complex. Some years later, “The Corral” was moved to the Federal Courthouse, while “Indian Fight” was put in storage.

“The government tends to move around paintings that might be controversial,” said Georgia Garnsey, “so maybe that’s what happened to ‘Indian Fight.’”

Today, “The Corral” is displayed in a second floor corridor of the Byron Rogers Federal Courthouse in Denver. Members of the public are welcome to view it, but they must first pass through court security screening. And, as the Business Journal was curtly informed, Depression-era artworks that belong to the Post Office cannot be photographed without written permission and a $25 payment.

“It’s a ridiculous policy,” said Garnsey. “The government is trying to use this art as a revenue source. When we were writing the book, we’d send in the form with a check, they’d cash the check, and we’d never hear back from them.”

“Indian Fight” languishes in storage in a Washington, D.C., warehouse, unavailable, unviewed and apparently unloved.

“It’s in a warehouse in Washington?” asked an astonished Matt Mayberry, director of the Pioneers Museum. “It sounds like an Indiana Jones movie.”

It may be time for restorative justice. These paintings were paid for with public money, and created specifically for Colorado Springs. And while some of Mechau’s commissioned murals have been removed from their original sites, many have not. Mechau murals grace post offices in Nebraska and Texas, and his paintings can be found in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, The Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Fine Arts Center curator Blake Milteer is intrigued by the possibility of recovering the murals.

“I’ll give you a short-term answer first,” he said. “We’re beginning a ‘legacy’ series of exhibitions, one-artist shows that focus on the most significant artists in the city’s history. The series will begin next year, and Mechau will be the subject of the 2015 exhibition. It takes a long time to put these together, but we should be able to borrow ‘Indian Fight’ and ‘The Corral’ from the Postal Service.”

And for the long term?

“I would hope that the Postal Service would look favorably on a long-term agreement that would bring the paintings home again, whether to be hung here or at the Pioneers Museum,” Milteer continued.

“They belong here in Colorado Springs.”

Matt Mayberry concurs.

“A long-term loan is never the best option for a museum,” he said. “It would be best if the Post Office would relinquish title to us or the FAC, but that’s a secondary consideration. The bottom line is that we’d love to have them back.”

Frank Mechau died in 1946, aged 42. The Gazette ran this stunned headline: “Frank Mechau, former Arts Center Artist, Drops Dead.” The lyrical, flowing realism that characterizes his work seemed stiff and old-fashioned by the early 1950s, as artists, critics and the public embraced abstract expressionism. It was not until 1972 that Mechau’s work was honored by a retrospective exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. Today, most critics would agree with Edward Bruce, the director of the federal Public Works Art Project, who said “Frank Mechau’s work alone would have justified the entire PWAP program.”